Currently, no research has reviewed the social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on patients with MS, who may experience greater social strain and more serious health consequences because of isolation measures, according to available evidence. Researchers aimed, in a retrospective longitudinal study of 266 patients with MS, to examine changes in mental health and engagement in activities during the pandemic, the impact of social isolation on mental health in this patient population, and changes among patients who continued with in-person visits.

“We found that, after the pandemic, people’s depression and anxiety got worse,” says study co-author Shu Ling, PhD. “Participation in social activities decreased, and patients say that they’re more isolated and lonelier.” Study results demonstrate that the changes in anxiety and depression were both statistically significant (P<.001). However, according to Dr. Ling, patients who continued to go into the office for medical care during the pandemic maintained their social and emotional health; the researchers also observed no changes in anxiety and depression in that group. “It’s likely that, if people were coming in for their doctor’s appointments, they were probably still doing other things: seeing their friends, seeing their family, going out to the park,” Dr. Ling says. “Social ties kind of served as a protective buffer against the negative impact of the pandemic.”

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The results suggest that clinicians should check in with patients about mental and social well-being, Dr. Ling notes. They also highlight the importance of having safe approaches to engage in social activities during the pandemic, especially for individuals with chronic illnesses like MS. “I think it’s reasonable to say that we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Ling adds. “We don’t know when the pandemic will be ending. This study was only done with about 6 months of data. I hope that there’s more attention from researchers, as well as policymakers, about the long-term social complications of the pandemic.”